The great thing about the NFL is that there are so many positions that every year, there is almost always at least one player who has a breakout year on every team, no matter how good or bad the team is. This is one part in a 32 part segment detailing one potential breakout player for the 2013 NFL season on each NFL team. For the Indianapolis Colts, that player is wide receiver TY Hilton.
As a rookie in 2012, TY Hilton put up some pretty impressive stats for the Colts, catching 50 passes for 861 yards and 7 touchdowns. He did this on 88 targets and while his catch rate of 56.8% is not very impressive, he caught so many deep balls and had so many big plays that he managed a very impressive 9.8 YPA. He also had the 7th highest catch rate (10 of 20) on balls that traveled at least 20 yards in the air among receivers who caught at least 10 such passes. In terms of quarterback rating when thrown to, he ranked 21st, as Andrew Luck had a 102.5 QB rating when throwing to him, nearly 30 points higher than Luck’s overall QB rating.
In his 2nd year in 2013, I have reason to believe he’ll be even more productive. For starters, he’ll obviously be more experienced. He doesn’t turn 24 until November and the 2012 3rd round pick has hardly peaked. What he did as a rookie was not only above average for a rookie receiver, but significantly above average when compared to rookie receivers drafted in the 1st round.
Since 2005, 28 receivers have gone in the 1st round. They’ve averaged 40 catches for 557 yards and 3 touchdowns per season. I don’t have the numbers for the descending rounds, but they are almost definitely lower. And Hilton, a 3rd round rookie, greatly exceeded these first round numbers. In his 2nd year in the league, he should improve on those numbers. One area that can be cleaned up is drops, as he dropped 10 passes last year. Just looking at his game 9-16 splits, you can see that Hilton became a better player as the season when on, catching 26 passes for 506 yards and 5 touchdowns in his final 8 games, 52 catches for 1012 yards and 10 touchdowns over 16 games.
The second reason I expect more production from him this year is that he’ll play more snaps. Last year, he worked as the 3rd receiver behind Reggie Wayne and Donnie Avery and only played 49 total snaps in his first 3 games. This year, Avery is gone and while they’ve added Darrius Heyward-Bey, he figures to be a backup with Hilton serving as the #2 receiver. Avery played 687 pass snaps to Hilton’s 508. If Hilton had played, say, 650 pass snaps last year, extrapolation off his rookie numbers alone gets him to 64 catches for 1102 yards and 9 touchdowns.
The third reason is that he figures, in addition to playing more snaps, to become a bigger part of the offense and get more targets per pass snap. That goes hand and hand with being a year more experienced, but he also has an aging Reggie Wayne opposite him. Wayne also had a huge season catching 106 passes for 1355 yards and 5 touchdowns, but he also received 179 targets and had the 6th highest targets per routes run in the NFL (TY Hilton was a modest 27th among 45 qualifying receivers).
Wayne also turns 35 this November. Over the next 2-4 years, Wayne can be expected to go from top flight receiver to complementary player to gone. That’s just what happens to receivers around this age. Even the average top-20 receiver (in terms of yardage all-time) has his last 1000 yard season at age 34-35, averages 48 catches for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns for 2 more seasons after age 34-35, and is done playing by age 36-37.
Wayne already showed some signs of slowing down in the 2nd half of last season, catching “just” 45 passes for 520 yards and 2 touchdowns, meaning Hilton almost out produced him in the 2nd half of last year. Going into 2013, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Hilton were this team’s leading receiver and even if he isn’t, he should still have a 1000 yard breakout year and he looks like a Pro-Bowl sleeper.
With Wayne aging, Andrew Luck’s receiving corps still appear to be in good hands for the future with Hilton having the profile of a future #1 receiver. He’s one of the fastest players in the NFL, flashing 4.34 speed at The Combine, and is developing the rest of his game. His size (5-10 183) could be the one thing that holds him back, but receivers such as Steve Smith (5-9 185), Antonio Brown (5-10 186) and DeSean Jackson (5-10 175) have all developed as #1 receivers in spite of their lack of size. Hilton has a similar skill set. There’s a reason he was one of my favorite sleeper prospects of the 2012 draft class.